Nova Scotia bucked view of top public health officers on pot and liquor sales

A 2016 report representing the view of all provincial and territorial chief medical officers of health recommended against selling cannabis alongside alcohol.

NSLC will sell cannabis alongside alcohol, despite concerns of medical officers of health across Canada

A man is shown smoking a joint at the Fill the Hill marijuana rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sunday, April 20, 2014. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The model under which Nova Scotia will be selling cannabis once it becomes legalized next year goes against the recommendations of a group representing Canadian chief medical officers of health, but the province is confident health and safety concerns will be met.

In September 2016, a report from the Urban Public Health Network (UPHN) representing the consensus view of all provincial and territorial chief medical officers of health as well as the medical officers of health in 21 of Canada's largest cities, said while government-run monopolies are the best choice for selling cannabis once it becomes legalized, cannabis shouldn't be sold alongside alcohol.

In early December, the province announced cannabis would be sold alongside alcohol at some NSLC locations. This contrasts with what will be done in New Brunswick and P.E.I., where the government-run liquor operations are setting up stand-alone stores to sell cannabis.

UPHN's report said selling cannabis in liquor stores raises public health concerns, such as exposing a large portion of the population to cannabis. While about 80 per cent of Canadians drink alcohol, the percentage that has smoked cannabis within the past year is about 11 per cent, according to Health Canada.

Cannabis will be legalized in Canada sometime next summer. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"This high degree of population exposure to potential cannabis use would be counter to public health protection objectives of limiting demand, availability, and accessibility as well as maintaining denormalization," said the report.

It's important to note cannabis will be sold at some NSLC locations, but not all.

Cannabis exposure is one of the reasons P.E.I. decided to use stand-alone stores.

"Co-location of these products could contribute to the normalization of cannabis by exposing large numbers of consumers who might not otherwise use cannabis to cannabis and cannabis advertising," said Katie MacDonald, a Justice and Public Safety spokesperson, in an email.

New Brunswick Finance Minister Cathy Rogers says a working group that included representatives from government, policing agencies and the New Brunswick Medical Society recommended cannabis be sold separately from alcohol. (CBC)

The UPHN report also notes that selling alcohol and cannabis in the same outlet "could signal that regulators are condoning or even encouraging combining use of these two substances. This is likely to promote co-use, which carries risks with respect to driving safety and potentially other health issues."

In New Brunswick, the province's cannabis stores will operate under the name CannabisNB.

"Right now, we know we have people using this product [cannabis]. It's not like we're looking for new users, right? So why introduce the product beside another product?" said Finance Minister Cathy Rogers.

Nova Scotia's chief public health officer Dr. Robert Strang says given the NSLC will be selling cannabis, it's important to have certain measures in place to protect public health. (CBC)

She said the province's decision was also influenced by a working group that included representatives from NB Liquor, the provincial departments of Health, Justice and Public Safety, policing agencies and the New Brunswick Medical Society, who recommended cannabis be sold separately from alcohol.

Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang, said in a statement that if cannabis is to be sold through liquor store outlets, it's important from a public health perspective to put mitigations in place.

"Those safeguards include training staff, clear signage to educate and inform customers of the risk of co-use, banning cross promotion and stocking alcohol and cannabis in physically separated spaces," he said.

Justice Minister Mark Furey says the model of selling alcohol and cannabis in NSLC locations is the most secure and professional model for cannabis sales in Nova Scotia. (CBC)

No one from the province was available to comment on this story, but Justice Minister Mark Furey told CBC News on Dec. 7 all of these measures will be in place.

He said the reason the province chose the NSLC for cannabis sales is that it was the right fit, given NSLC has infrastructure across the province, well-trained staff and a social responsibility strategy.

"The co-location is, in our view, the most secure, most professional method of delivery," said Furey.